Jerome Bettis is certain the New England Patriots cheated against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2004 AFC Championship Game. The Hall of Fame running back sat down with former Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and USA Today’s Jarrett Bailey to recount how he believes the Patriots stole signals to stop a running play on a crucial fourth down nearly two decades ago.
Speaking on an edition of “Footbahlin with Ben Roethlisberger,” Bettis explained how the Patriots made an unusual substitution after deciphering a would-be counter play.
When Roethlisberger exclaimed, “to be fair, the Patriots cheated,” Bettis replied emphatically, “for sure they did. There’s not even a question mark. It’s not even a question in my mind.”
Bettis described how then-offensive line coach Russ Grimm used a hand-slapping gesture to signal a counter run. That prompted what the legendary player nicknamed ‘The Bus’ believes was suspicious activity along the New England sideline: “They saw this (hand-slapping). Coach called it, offensive line coach did that on the sideline, they called timeout. Who normally goes to the sideline on timeout? The defensive captains, right? They told the nose guard, Washington, they pulled him to the sideline. Big, 400-pound guy. He don’t want to go to the sideline and come all the way back.”
While admitting he “always thought” it was strange to see the nose tackle leave the field in that situation, Bettis remembered how the same player wrecked the Steelers’ run: “Then, we run the play, he loops into the hole. Washington does. They stop us on fourth down. That’s a critical play in the game.”
How the play unfolded from timeout to fourth-down stop left Bettis with only one conclusion about the Patriots’ tactics: “They had our signs. And they called a timeout to get them ready for that play, ’cause they knew it was coming. No question in my mind.”
This is far from the first time the Patriots have been accused of stealing signals. Yet, as more than one listener noted, there are a few inconsistencies in Bettis’ recollection.
Inconsistencies in Bettis’ Recollection
You could fill books stacked on top of books with accusations made against the Patriots for underhanded methods. Stealing signals has been a common accusation since former Pats’ defensive coordinator Eric Mangini ignited the ‘Spygate’ scandal while head coach of the New York Jets in 2007.
‘Spygate’ dealt with accusations of foul play during the period Bettis was remembering. The Patrios won the AFC Championship Game during the 2004 season, defeating the Steelers 41-27 at Heinz Field.
That victory propelled the Patriots to a third Super Bowl berth in four years. It also afforded head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady the chance to complete the first half of what would be a six-title dynasty for the franchise.
The Patriots achieved an unparalleled run of success in the NFL’s modern era under Belichick and Brady, but the stain of ‘Spygate’ has always blotted the copybook somewhat. Critics will welcome Bettis’ words, but Patriots fans can question his memory.
First, as Michael Hurley of CBS Boston pointed out, “no timeout was called.”
Another obvious discrepancy concerns Bettis remembering Ted Washington as the nose guard who stopped him on that fateful fourth down. The problem is Washington wasn’t on the roster for the Patriots in 2004 after helping New England beat the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl the previous season.
Instead, rookie Vince Wilfork and another veteran retread, Keith Traylor, played nose tackle for the Patriots in ’04, per Pro Football Reference. Like Washington, Traylor was a 300-plus pound force in the middle who presented a beefy barrier to any running game, the personification of the words, “you shall not pass!”
Yet, a look at the play-by-play transcription from Pro Football Reference, shows Bettis was tackled by linebackers, not Traylor, on 4th-and-1 at the 7:07 mark of the first quarter: “Jerome Bettis up the middle for no gain (tackle by Rosevelt Colvin). Jerome Bettis fumbles (forced by Rosevelt Colvin), recovered by Mike Vrabel at NWE-39 and returned for 1 yards.”
Brady capitalised by turning Bettis’ takeaway into a 60-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch, per Boston Sports Info.
The huge swing in momentum sent the Patriots on their way to another conference title. Despite the controversy hinted at by Bettis and others, not everybody believes the Patriots won unfairly.
Another Steelers’ Great Disagrees With Bettis
Bettis isn’t the only Steelers’ player who is aggrieved. Outside linebacker James Harrison previously stated the Pats “picked up, like, 90, 92 percent of our blitzes,” per Sports Illustrated’s Neal Coolong (h/t Daniel Sager of Steelers Wire).
Harrison, Bettis and Roethlisberger may be convinced the Patriots did them dirty, but the Steelers’ head coach that day has a different take. Bill Cowher spoke to Ed Bouchette for the Athletic in 2021 and offered a more above-boards explanation for anything the Patriots did to anticipate their opponents’ tendencies.
Cowher explained, “I always thought we never lost the games to New England because of Spygate. If he got the calls because we didn’t do a very good job of making sure we signalled those in, that’s on us, it’s not on him. Because we’re always looking for competitive edges. I think as any coach whether it’s someone’s stance, someone’s split, someone’s formation (that tips off a play). You’re looking at someone’s eyes, how are they coming out of a huddle? You’re always looking for those little things that give you a competitive edge and that to me is what that was.”
Cowher’s explanation would answer Harrison’s critique, but it may not satisfy Bettis. The inconsistencies in how he remembers that fateful play will be enough to blunt his argument for those not willing to believe the worst about the Patriots.